Matt Yglesias comments on Twitter that it’s “Noteworthy how often conservatives pine for the higher-tax, more regulated, more racist, more misogynistic Mad Men era.” This claim faithfully reproduces an Obama-campaign talking point. But there’s little reason to think that it’s is true now, or even that it has been in the past. I suppose that some conservatives may recall the period between 1945 and 1965 as a golden age of so-called family values. At least since the foundation of National Review in 1955, however, most prominent spokesmen for the Right have rejected the high-tax, interventionist policies that Yglesias mentions.
There are vocal ’50s nostalgists in American public life today. It’s just that they’re most often to be found among on the Left. Paul Krugman devotes the first chapter of The Conscience of a Liberal to recalling “the way we were” in those long gone days. And in The Great Divergence, Timothy Noah actually describes mid-century America as “paradise lost”.
Of course, the nostalgic Left rejects what Yglesias describes as the racism and misogyny of the ’50s. What they miss is that racial hierarchies and, especially, traditional gender roles were not simply incidental to the economic and social consensus for which they yearn. The regulatory state that emerged during the Cold War was not geared toward individual freedom, let alone the establishment of equality between the sexes, races, and other groups. It was designed — as critics from the Frankfurt School to the Beats recognized — to encourage and provide the material foundation for a particular vision of the good life exemplified by the white, suburban, nuclear family.
The problem for contemporary liberals, especially of the New York Times variety, is balancing their admiration for these policies with their resistance to the substantive conception of a good life that justified them. It’s not enough to say that everyone should have their “fair share” to dispose of as they wish. In order to convince citizens to share their resources and accept limits on their freedoms, one must also say what that share should be used for.
Much has been written about the crack-up of the Right since the end of the Cold War. I suspect that the Left faces its own split between those who prioritize individual rights and those who accept the more communitarian ethos necessary to legitimize meaningful programs of redistribution. As conservatives have learned, it’s almost impossible to defend social arrangements on the simple ground that they are old and were popular in the past. Looking backward is not enough.